Toronto Star column – published August 10, 2013
“History is a symphony of echoes heard and unheard. It is a poem with events as verses.” ~Charles Angoff
You know the pyramids of Egypt? You can have that in your backyard. Well, not exactly. According to Paul Brydges, a landscape architect in Guelph with a pedigree for building stuff out of natural stone, minus the mortar, it is possible to build a permanent structure into your garden scheme that is so permanent that it could very well out last your home. It most certainly will outlast you and your grandchildren, if it is built right.
The method used for building the ancient stone pyramids of King Tut (among others) in the Valley of the Kings is called ‘dry stone wall (DSW) construction’ and it has proven down through the ages to be perhaps the most durable form of construction known to humankind. The really good news is that it is becoming a popular method of building here in Ontario, due to the emergence of a new organization called the ‘Dry Stone Walling Institute’ under the auspices of Landscape Ontario, our professional industry trade association.
To learn more about this fascinating building method, I contacted Paul Brydges and Denis Flanagan, a Brit who works for Landscape Ontario. Denis shares Paul’s passion for dry stone walling. Here is what I learned from our interview [condensed and edited from the original version]:
Mark: what is dry stone walling?
Paul: In a word, timeless. Dry stone wall structures and buildings as well as fences and walls are all based on the same ancient principals. No mortar is required for construction provided that a skilled craftsman constructs the project. The natural character and beauty of stone can be no better shown than when put into context with itself. Since each stone has unique undulations as height is added to the structure, weight is continually being added on top of each stone to use the natural features to lock the structure together. [ed: you could say that a good stone wall contractor learns how to ‘read’ the stones for best result.]
Denis: I have seen wonderful examples in rural Britain where I grew up, and on a recent visit to Ireland learned that you could tell which county you were traveling in by the individual style of the walling.
Mark: What distinguishes DSW construction from other construction?
Paul: DSW construction, if built properly, should be a multigenerational structure. It can be handed down from generation to generation [ed: though, a little hard to move]. Minor repairs are always a reality but the bones will remain. Only local materials are required in regions where stone is available. The character and visual strength of stone lends itself to being timeless.
Mark: how did you become interested in DSWs?
Paul: I have a minor in American History and have travelled in many regions of the US and Canada where historical sites have simply made use of the native materials available to build with on-site by hand: stone and wood predominately.
There is no better material to knit in to the design for many projects. As well as the incredible aesthetics it is a truly functional and diverse building style.
Mark: what is the history/background of DSWs?
Paul: DSW builds on the same principal as the Egyptian pyramids.
DSW is a craft that was popularized in Great Britain and Europe over a couple of thousand years. Early Europeans brought this knowledge with them when they came across the Atlantic.
Mark: what are the advantages of DSWs?
Paul: Longevity, first and foremost. This is a multigenerational build. Very few other materials or techniques will outlast the dry stone wall home, wall, fence, or other work on site.
Aesthetics. Natural stone used by itself showcases each individual stone within the structure and shows how each stone relates to the other. With a keen eye, the construction itself is a thing of beauty.
Versatility is also a big consideration. Walls can be straight, curved, bowed up or down, built around existing elements, and can adapt as required due to site conditions or changes to the design
Mark: Costs – relative to alternatives?
Paul: Sticker shock can be an issue. Take into consideration longevity and it is actually the cheapest long-term solution.
Mark: Where in Ontario can one go to see this form of construction?
Paul: Four incredible examples are on site in Hanover, Ontario. Check out the dry stack stone stable from our Stonewurx festival last year complete with green roof. Curved and straight free-standing walls and retaining walls as well as columns are featured.
We also constructed a milk house ruins on the same site as the first venture into dry stack in the area. This is an ‘English folly’ to be termed properly and is a beautiful example of using a structure as art.
There is also a structure called a “black house” in Holstein close by that was constructed by one of the same “wallers” who built the stone stable.
There are only a handful of these buildings in North America that have been constructed in the last 100 years.
Denis: for several years now Landscape Ontario has been holding courses for contractors who wish to learn the ancient skills of dry stone walling. The two-day format allows lots of time for students to ask questions regarding their own dry stone projects. All instructors are certified with the Dry Stone Walling Association of Great Britain. The course fee includes registration with the DSWA of Great Britain. . The course is held at the Landscape Ontario home office in Milton. For details contact Dean McLellan at 519-321-1586 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mark: are there places outside of Ontario where DSW skills have been employed?
Paul: There are reconstructions of Viking houses in Newfoundland.
Mark: what else can you tell me about DSW construction that would be instructive to readers?
Paul: DSW also has the ability to blend into mortared stone construction. Traditional limestone homes, such as the ones that are in the Guelph area, blend in and complement dry stone walls and buildings.
There has been a growing demand for old world heritage and craftsmanship and quality in the market. It is a more natural construction technique that is much less invasive on the environment and more aesthetically pleasing.
It will withstand freeze-thaw cycles of Canadian winters.
It is repairable if damaged.
It is local material, not imported from offshore or produced in a manufacturing process.
It has the ability to mimic nature for more relaxed and natural landscapes such as the Niagara Escarpment.
It can be used functionally as a below grade retaining wall, above grade for benches, pillars.
Mark: Contractors – where can we find good ones? What should my expectations be of costs/timing etc? Do I need to provide my own stones or have some available locally?
Paul: A list of DSW contractors who have graduated can be found at www.landscapeontario.com.
Clearly, a dry stone wall, building, or arch in your garden will make a statement about you, the homeowner and gardener. Just make sure that it is built right the first time by a qualified, trained contractor. Paul and Denis don’t want to be the ones that you call for a fix-it.
Question of the Week
Q/ I would like to prune my Globe Cedars. Is this a good time?
A/ Early August is a great time to prune cedars (and all evergreens). Pruning now will encourage a new flush of growth later in the month.